Keep the Change: A Controlled Rant on American Gratuity
Two dollars and fourteen cents can buy a lot by today’s standards. It can buy you a brand name bag of chips, a stick of mediocre deodorant, or maybe even some fabric softener if you’re packing the right coupons. In case you didn’t pick up on the sarcasm, $2.14 is a laughable amount of money to have, and it unfortunately accounts for the hourly wage of your average American server.
Now before you roll your eyes and click off “another dumb article on tipping” I implore you to hear me out for a bit. Tipping has become such a controversial topic that it flares up in online forums every other month, but I bet you 95% of the people arguing over tipping have not educated themselves about it.
The Oxford English dictionary takes the history of gratuity all the way back to the infancy of 1500s in Germany, where patrons would provide the bar worker with a trinkgeld, literally translating to drink money; the initial idea was that the bar worker would use that money given to him to buy one for himself later. Other sources also suggest that even before that, European patrons would provide money upfront before service to insure promptness, (of TIP for short) but the general consensus agrees that it began in Europe. 17th century Tudor England citizens would leave money for servants after staying in a private house; eventually this idea of leaving money diffused to the local English businesses, and it became a social norm in England.
The only reason tipping reached the United States was because of the Civil War. Americans who traveled to England observed the idea of tipping and brought it back to the States in order to show off their elevated social status. Fast forward a few generations and here we are, tipping and constantly complaining about it—I suppose we really do owe everything to England, for better or for worse.
The people who do tip are people that know the meager wages that those employees are expected to live off of, but why has such a societal schism appeared over the years when it comes to gratuity? I feel that a valid contributor is the inability to determine a tip able service: When is tipping a necessity and when is it a novelty?
Picture your favorite restaurant, unless it’s a drive-thru (in which case, find better food because it’s definitely out there). When you walk in, is there someone to greet you? Are you handed a menu or do you read it from a large, lit-up, stylized board? These things can help you determine what to expect in terms of gratuity. If you are ordering your food to-go, then there is a good chance that the cashier is receiving an appropriate, albeit small, wage.
You may look around after you order and see a tip jar with some money, or maybe there will even be a place to put a tip in on the receipt. This is a textbook red herring; it is there to make you think you should tip, and it works more often than it should. People get annoyed with tipping more often than they should because of instances like this. When tipping is seen as a novelty, it becomes frivolous and unnecessary, and it indirectly cripples tipping as a concept when it is a necessity.
If you are in a sit-down restaurant with a server, you need to tip them—that is the simple truth. Society has fallen on 15% being an appropriate median, with fluctuations based on the service and the quality of the experience. Restaurant servers directly rely on tips, and failure to do so results in that employee receiving negative wages; stiffing the server will not only stop the server from making money, but also force that server to pay tip share for the sale, essentially making that server pay to serve you.
Of course restaurants are not the only place where you need to tip. Hotel maids receive a small amount of money for each room they clean, so leaving them money afterwards is encouraged, especially if you leave it dirty. Car washes are also appropriate to tip when the employee does more than squeegee your windshield and lead you inside the automatic wash. Valet service usually correlates the tip to the ease of access to your vehicle, so plan accordingly. Delivery drivers are also a must because they do everything a restaurant server does, except literally going the extra mile to ensure your food gets to you. Bartenders are always busy, but a good one never forgets a face; you’ll be taken care of if you take care of them.
I’m certain that I missed many other occupations that have been overlooked, but take these words with a grain of salt. Understand that whether you tip the barebones 15% or supersede 20% of your bill, your gratuity is benefitting someone else. Don’t fall for novelty tip jars and exercise good judgment when you go out, adjusting the tip if the service exceeds or fails your expectations. Tipping has been around for over half a millennia, and it doesn’t seem to be phasing out anytime soon.